THE KEEPER OF THE DOOR
By ETHEL M. DELL
AUTHOR OF "The Way of an Eagle," "The Knave of Diamonds," "The Rocks of Valpre," Etc.
A.L. BURT COMPANY
Publishers New York
Published by Arrangements with G.P. PUTNAM'S SONS, 1915
ETHEL M. DELL
BY ETHEL M. DELL
The Way of an Eagle The Knave of Diamonds The Rocks of Valpre The Swindler The Keeper of the Door Bars of Iron Rosa Mundi The Obstacle Race Tetherstones The Passerby and Other Stories The Hundredth Chance The Safety Curtain Greatheart The Lamp in the Desert The Tidal Wave The Top of the World The Odds and Other Stories Charles Rex The Unknown Quantity A Man Under Authority
This edition is issued under arrangement with the publishers G.P. PUTNAM'S SONS, NEW YORK AND LONDON
The Knickerbocker Press, New York Made in the United States of America
I DEDICATE THIS BOOK TO THE DEAR MEMORY OF ONE WHO WAITS BEYOND THE DOOR FOR THOSE HE LOVES
"And the keepers before the door kept the prison."
Acts xii. 6.
"A deep below the deep And a height beyond the height! Our hearing is not hearing, And our seeing is not sight."
The Voice and the Peak.
I. THE LESSON 1
II. THE ALLY 16
III. THE OBSTACLE 27
IV. THE SETTING OF THE WATCH 37
V. THE CHAPERON 47
VI. THE PAIN-KILLER 62
VII. THE PUZZLE 74
VIII. THE ELASTIC BOND 86
IX. THE PROJECT 97
X. THE DOOR 108
XI. THE IMPOSSIBLE 120
XII. THE PAL 129
XIII. HER FATE 149
XIV. THE DARK HOUR 155
XV. THE AWAKENING 167
XVI. SECRETS 177
XVII. THE VERDICT 189
XVIII. SOMETHING LOST 198
XIX. THE REVELATION 205
XX. THE SEARCH 217
XXI. ON THE BRINK 228
XXII. OVER THE EDGE 235
XXIII. AS GOOD AS DEAD 243
XXIV. THE OPENING OF THE DOOR 252
XXV. THE PRICE 264
I. COURTSHIP 281
II. THE SELF-INVITED GUEST 287
III. THE NEW LIFE 297
IV. THE PHANTOM 305
V. THE EVERLASTING CHAIN 317
VI. CHRISTMAS MORNING 327
VII. THE WILDERNESS OF NASTY POSSIBILITIES 340
VIII. THE SOUL OF A HERO 350
IX. THE MAN WITH THE GUN 357
X. A TALK IN THE OPEN 367
XI. THE FAITHFUL WOUND OF A FRIEND 376
XII. A LETTER FROM AN OLD ACQUAINTANCE 390
XIII. A WOMAN'S PREJUDICE 403
XIV. SMOKE FROM THE FIRE 414
XV. THE SPREADING OF THE FLAME 426
XVI. THE GAP 437
XVII. THE EASIEST COURSE 452
XVIII. ONE MAN'S LOSS 462
XIX. A FIGHT WITHOUT A FINISH 472
XX. THE POWER OF THE ENEMY 487
XXI. THE GATHERING STORM 503
XXII. THE REPRIEVE 510
XXIII. THE GIFT OF THE RAJAH 518
XXIV. THE BIG, BIG GAME OF LIFE 528
XXV. MEMORIES THAT HURT 537
XXVI. A FOOL'S ERRAND 548
XXVII. LOVE MAKES ALL THE DIFFERENCE 556
XXVIII. A SOLDIER AND A GENTLEMAN 570
XXIX. THE MAN'S POINT OF VIEW 578
XXX. THE LINE OF RETREAT 588
"Then he's such a prig!" said Olga.
"You should never use a word you can't define," observed Nick, from the depths of the hammock in which his meagre person reposed at length.
She made a face at him, and gave the hammock a vicious twitch which caused him to rock with some violence for several seconds. As he was wont pathetically to remark, everyone bullied him because he was small and possessed only one arm, having shed the other by inadvertence somewhere on the borders of the Indian Empire.
Certainly Olga—his half-brother's eldest child—treated him with scant respect, though she never allowed anyone else to be other than polite to him in her hearing. But then she and Nick had been pals from the beginning of things, and this surely entitled her to a certain licence in her dealings with him. Nick, too, was such a darling; he never minded anything.
Having duly punished him for snubbing her, she returned with serenity to the work upon her lap.
"You see," she remarked thoughtfully, "the worst of it is he really is a bit of a genius. And one can't sit on genius—with comfort. It sort of flames out where you least expect it."
"Highly unpleasant, I should think," agreed Nick.
"Yes; and he has such a disgusting fashion of behaving as if—as if one were miles beneath his notice," proceeded Olga. "And I'm not a chicken, you know, Nick, I'm twenty."
"A vast age!" said Nick.
For which remark she gave him another jerk which set him swinging like a pendulum.
"Well, I've got a little sense anyhow," she remarked.
"But not much," said Nick. "Or you would know that that sort of treatment after muffins for tea is calculated to produce indigestion in a very acute form, peculiarly distressing to the beholder."
"Oh, I'm sorry! I forgot the muffins." Olga laid a restraining hand upon the hammock. "But do you like him, Nick? Honestly now!"
"My dear child, I never like anyone till I've seen him at his worst. Drawing-room manners never attract me."
"But this man hasn't got any manners at all," objected Olga. "And he's so horribly satirical. It's like having a stinging-nettle in the house. I believe—just because he's clever in his own line—that he's been spoilt. As if everybody couldn't do something!"
"Ah! That's the point," said Nick sententiously. "Everybody can, but it isn't everybody who does. Now this young man apparently knows how to make the most of his opportunities. He plays a rattling hand at bridge, by the way."
"I wonder if he cheats," said Olga. "I'm sure he's quite unscrupulous."
Nick turned his head, and surveyed her from under his restless eyelids. "I begin to think you must be falling in love with the young man," he observed.
"Don't be absurd, Nick!" Olga did not even trouble to look up. She was stitching with neat rapidity.
"I'm not. That's just how my wife fell in love with me. I assure you it often begins that way." Nick shook his head wisely. "I should take steps to be nice to him if I were you, before the mischief spreads."
Olga tossed her head. She was slightly flushed. "I shall never make a fool of myself over any man, Nick," she said. "I'm quite determined on that point."
"Dear, dear!" said Nick. "How old did you say you were?"
"I am woman enough to know my own mind," said Olga.
"Heaven forbid!" said Nick. "You wouldn't be a woman at all if you did that."
"I don't think you are a good judge on that subject, Nick," remarked his niece judiciously. "In fact, even Dr. Wyndham knows better than that. I assure you the antipathy is quite mutual. He regards everyone who isn't desperately ill as superfluous and uninteresting. He was absolutely disappointed the other day because, when I slipped on the stairs, I didn't break any bones."
"What a fiend!" said Nick.
"And yet Dad likes him," said Olga. "I can't understand it. The poor people like him too in a way. Isn't it odd? They seem to have such faith in him."
"I believe Jim has faith in him," remarked Nick. "He wouldn't turn him loose on his patients if he hadn't."
"Of course, Sir Kersley Whitton recommended him," conceded Olga. "And he is an absolutely wonderful man, Dad says. He calls him the greatest medicine-man in England. He took up Max Wyndham years ago, when he was only a medical student. And he has been like a father to him ever since. In fact, I don't believe Dr. Wyndham would ever have come here if Sir Kersley hadn't made him. He was overworked and wouldn't take a rest, so Sir Kersley literally forced him to come and be Dad's assistant for a while. He told Dad that he was too brilliant a man to stay long in the country, and Dad gathered that he contemplated making him his own partner in the course of time. The sooner the better, I should say. He obviously thinks himself quite thrown away on the likes of us."
"Altogether he seems to be a very interesting young man," said Nick. "I must really cultivate his acquaintance. Is he going to be present to-night?"
"Oh, I suppose so. It's a great drawback having him living in the house. You see, being his hostess, I have to be more or less civil to him. It's very horrid," said Olga, upon whom, in consequence of her mother's death three years before, the duties of housekeeper had devolved. "And Dad is so fearfully strict too. He won't let me be the least little bit rude, though he is often quite rude himself. You know Dad."
"I know him," said Nick. "He's licked me many a time, bless his heart, and richly I deserved it. Help me to get out of this like a good kid! I see James the Second and the twins awaiting me on the tennis-court. I promised them a sett after tea."
He rolled on to his feet with careless agility, his one arm encircling his young niece's shoulders.
"I shouldn't worry if I were you," protested Olga. "It's much too hot. Don't waste your energies amusing the children! They can quite well play about by themselves."
"And get up to mischief," said Nick. "No, I'm on the job, overlooking the whole crowd of you, and I'll do it thoroughly. When old Jim comes home he'll find a model household awaiting him. By the way, I had a letter from him this afternoon. The kiddie is stronger already, and Muriel as happy as a queen. I shall hear from her to-morrow."
"Don't you wish you were with them?" questioned Olga. "It would be much more fun than staying here to chaperone me."
Nick looked quizzical. "Oh, there's plenty of fun to be had out of that too," he assured her. "I take a lively interest in you, my child; always have."
"You're a darling," said Olga, raising her face impulsively. "I shall write and tell Dad what care you are taking of us all."
She kissed him warmly and let him go, smiling at the tuneless humming that accompanied his departure. Who at a casual glance would have taken Nick Ratcliffe for one of the keenest politicians of his party, a man whom friend and foe alike regarded as too brilliant to be ignored? He had even been jestingly described as "that doughty champion of the British Empire"—an epithet that Olga cherished jealously because it had not been bestowed wholly in jest.
His general appearance was certainly the reverse of imposing, and in this particular, to her intense gratification, Olga resembled him. She had the same quick, pale eyes, with the shrewdness of observation that never needed to look twice, the same colourless brows and lashes and insignificant features; but she possessed one redeeming point which Nick lacked. What with him was an impish grin of sheer exuberance, with her was a smile of rare enchantment, very fleeting, with a fascination quite indescribable but none the less capable of imparting to her pale young face a charm that only the greatest artists have ever been able to depict. People were apt to say of Olga Ratcliffe that she had a face that lighted up well. Her ready intelligence was ardent enough to illuminate her. No one was ever dull in her society. Certainly in her temperament at least there was nothing colorless. Where she loved she loved intensely, and she hated in the same way, quite thoroughly and without dissimulation.
Maxwell Wyndham, for instance, the subject of her recent conversation with Nick, she had disliked wholeheartedly from the commencement of their acquaintance, and he was perfectly aware of the fact. He could not well have been otherwise, but he was by no means disconcerted thereby. It even seemed as if he took a malicious pleasure in developing her dislike upon every opportunity that presented itself, and since he was living in the house as her father's assistant, opportunities were by no means infrequent.
But there was no open hostility between them. Under Dr. Ratcliffe's eye, his daughter was always frigidly polite to the unwelcome outsider, and the outsider accepted her courtesy with a sarcastic smile, knowing exactly how much it was worth.
Perhaps he was a little curious to know how she meant to treat him during her father's absence, or it may have been sheer chance that actuated him on that sultry evening in August, but Nick and his three playfellows had only just settled down to a serious sett when the doctor's assistant emerged from the house with his hands deep in his pockets and a peculiarly evil-smelling cigarette between his firm lips, and strolled across to the shady corner under the walnut-trees where the doctor's daughter was sitting.
She was stitching so busily that she did not observe his approach until escape was out of the question; but she would not have retreated in any case. It was characteristic of her to display a bold front to the people she disliked.
She threw him one of her quick glances as he reached her, and noted with distaste the extreme fieriness of his red hair in the light of the sinking sun. His hair had always been an offence to her. It was so obtrusive. But she could have borne with that alone. It was the green eyes that mocked at everything from under shaggy red brows that had originally given rise to her very decided antipathy, and these Olga found it impossible to condone. People had no right to mock, whatever the colour of their eyes.
He joined her as though wholly unaware of her glance of disparagement.
"I fear I am spoiling a charming picture," he observed as he did so. "But since there was none but myself to admire it, I felt at liberty to do so."
Again momentarily Olga's eyes flashed upwards, comprehending the whole of his thick-set figure in a single sweep of the eyelids. He was exceedingly British in build, possessing in breadth what he lacked in height. There was a bull-dog strength about his neck and shoulders that imparted something of a fighting look to his general demeanour. He bore himself with astounding self-assurance.
"Have you had any tea?" Olga inquired somewhat curtly. She was inwardly wondering what he had come for. He usually had a very definite reason for all he did.
"Many thanks," he replied, balancing himself on the edge of the hammock. "I am deeply touched by your solicitude for my welfare. I partook of tea at the Campions' half an hour ago."
"At the Campions'!" There was quick surprise in Olga's voice.
It elicited no explanation however. He sat and swayed in the hammock as though he had not noticed it.
After a moment she turned and looked at him fully. The green eyes were instantly upon her, alert and critical, holding that gleam of satirical humour that she invariably found so exasperating.
"Well?" said Olga at last.
"Well, fair lady?" he responded, with bland serenity.
She frowned. He was the only person in her world who ever made her take the trouble to explain herself, and he did it upon every possible occasion, with unvarying regularity. She hated him for it very thoroughly, but she always had to yield.
"Why did you go to the Campions'?" she asked, barely restraining her irritation.
"That, fair lady," he coolly responded, "is a question which with regret I must decline to answer."
Olga flushed. "How absurd!" she said quickly. "Dad would tell me like a shot."
"I am not Dad," said the doctor's assistant, with unruffled urbanity. "Moreover, fair lady—"
"I prefer to be called by my name if you have no objection, Dr. Wyndham," cut in Olga, with rising wrath.
He smiled at something over her head. "Thank you, Olga. It saves trouble certainly. Would you like to call me by mine? Max is what I generally answer to."
Olga turned a vivid scarlet. "I am Miss Ratcliffe to you," she said.
He accepted the rebuff with unimpaired equanimity. "I thought it must be too good to be true. Pardon my presumption! When you are as old as I am you will realize how little it really matters. You are genuinely angry, I suppose? Not pretending?"
Olga bit her lip in silence and returned to her work, conscious of unsteady fingers, conscious also of a scrutiny that marked and derided the fact.
"Yes," he said, after a moment, "I should think your pulse must be about a hundred. Leave off working for a minute and let it steady down!"
Olga stitched on in spite of growing discomfiture. The shakiness was increasing very perceptibly. She could feel herself becoming hotter every moment. It was maddening to feel those ironical eyes noting and ridiculing her agitation. From exasperation she had passed to something very nearly resembling fury.
"Leave off!" he said again; and then, because she would not, he laid a detaining hand upon her work.
Instantly and fiercely her needle stabbed downwards. It was done in a moment, almost before she realized the nature of the impulse that possessed her. Straight into the back of his hand the weapon drove, and there from the sheer force of the impact broke off short.
Olga exclaimed in horror, but Max Wyndham made no sound of any sort. The cigarette remained between his lips, and not a muscle of his face moved. His hand with the broken needle in it was not withdrawn. It clenched slowly, that was all.
The blood welled up under Olga's dismayed eyes, and began to trickle over the brown fist. She threw a frightened glance into his grim face. Her anger had wholly evaporated and she was keenly remorseful. But it was no matter for an apology. The thing was beyond words.
"And now," said Max Wyndham, coolly removing the ash from his cigarette, "perhaps you will come to the surgery with me and get it out."
"I?" stammered Olga, turning very white.
"Even so, fair lady. It will be a little lesson for you—in surgery. I hope the sight of blood doesn't make you feel green," said Max, with a one-sided twitch of the lips that was scarcely a smile.
He removed his hand to her relief, and stood up. Olga stood up too, but she was trembling all over.
"Oh, I can't! Indeed, I can't! Dr. Wyndham, please!" She glanced round desperately. "There's Nick! Couldn't you ask him?"
"Unfortunately this is a job that requires two hands," said Max. "Besides, you did the mischief, remember."
Olga gasped and said no more. Meekly she laid her work on the chair by the hammock and accompanied him to the house. It was the most painful predicament she had ever been in. She knew that there was no escape for her, knew, moreover, that she richly deserved her punishment; yet, as he held open the surgery-door for her, she made one more appeal.
"I'm sure I can't do it. I shall do more harm than good, and hurt you horribly."
"Oh, but you'll enjoy that," he said.
"Indeed, I shan't!" Olga was almost in tears by this time. "Couldn't you do it yourself with—with a forceps?"
"Afraid not," said Max.
He went to a cupboard and took out a bottle containing something which he measured into a glass and filled up with water.
"Fortify yourself with this," he said, handing it to her, "while I select the instruments of torture."
Olga shuddered visibly. "I don't want it. I only want to go."
"Well, you can't go," he returned, "until you have extracted that bit of needle of yours. So drink that, and be sensible!"
He pulled out a drawer with the words, and she watched him, fascinated, as he made his selection. He glanced up after a moment.
"Olga, if you don't swallow that stuff soon, I shall be—annoyed with you."
She raised it at once to her lips, feeling as if she had no choice, and drank with shuddering distaste.
"I always have hated sal volatile," she said, as she finished the draught.
"You can't have everything you like in this world," returned Max sententiously. "Come over here by the window! Now you are to do exactly what I tell you. Understand? Put your own judgment in abeyance. Yes, I know it's bleeding; but you needn't shudder like that. Give me your hand!" She gave it, trembling. He held it firmly, looking straight into her quivering face. "We won't proceed," he said, "until you have quite recovered your self-control, or you may go and slit a large vein, which would be awkward for us both. Just stand still and pull yourself together."
She found herself obliged to obey. The shrewd green eyes watched her mercilessly, and under their unswerving regard her agitation gradually died down.
"That's better," he said at length, and released her hand. "Now see what you can do."
It seemed to Olga later that he took so keen an interest in the operation as to be quite insensible of the pain it involved. She obeyed his instructions herself with a set face and a quaking heart, suppressing a sick shudder from time to time, finally achieving the desired end with a face so ghastly that the victim of her efforts laughed outright.
"Whom are you most sorry for, yourself or me?" he wanted to know. "I say, please don't faint till you have bandaged me up! I can't attend to you properly if you do, and I shall probably spill blood over you and make a beastly mess."
Again his insistence carried the day. Olga bandaged the torn hand without a murmur.
"And now," said Dr. Max Wyndham, "tell me what you did it for!"
She looked at him then with quick defiance. She had endured much in silence, mainly because she had known that she had deserved it; but there was a limit. She was not going to be brought to book as though she had been a naughty child.
"You had yourself alone to thank for it," she declared with indignation. "If—if you hadn't interfered and behaved intolerably, it wouldn't have happened."
"What a naive way of expressing it!" said Max. "Shall I tell you how I regard the 'happening'?"
"You can do as you like," she flung back. She was longing to go, but stood her ground lest departure should look like flight.
Max took out and lighted another cigarette before he spoke again. Then: "I regard it," he said very deliberately, "as a piece of spiteful mischief for which you deserve a sound whipping—which it would give me immense pleasure to administer."
Olga's pale face flamed scarlet. Her eyes flashed up to his in fiery disdain.
"You!" she said, with withering scorn. "You!"
"Well, what about me?"
Carelessly, his hands in his pockets, Max put the question. Quite obviously he did not care in the smallest degree what answer she made. And so Olga, being stung to rage by his unbearable superiority, cast scruples to the wind.
"I'd do the same to you again—and worse," she declared vindictively, "if I got the chance!"
Max smiled at that superciliously, one corner of his mouth slightly higher than the other. "Oh, no, you wouldn't," he said. "For one thing, you wouldn't care to run the risk of having to sew me up again. And for another, you wouldn't dare!"
"Not dare! Do you think I am afraid of you?"
Olga stood in a streak of sunlight that slanted through the wire blind of the doctor's surgery and fell in chequers upon her white dress. Her pale eyes fairly blazed. No one who had ever seen her thus would have described her as colourless. She was as vivid in that moment as the flare of the sunset; and into the eyes of the man who leaned against the table coolly appraising her there came an odd little gleam of satisfaction—the gleam that comes into the eyes of the treasure-hunter at the first glint of gold.
Olga came a step towards him. She saw the gleam and took it for ridicule. The situation was intolerable. She would be mocked no longer.
"Dr. Wyndham," she said, her voice pitched rather low, "do you call yourself a gentleman?"
"I really don't know," he answered. "It's a question I've never asked myself."
"Because," she said, speaking rather quickly, "I think you a cad."
"Not really!" said Max, smiling openly. "Now I wonder why! Sit down, won't you, and tell me?"
The colour was fading from her face again. She had made a mistake in thus assailing him, and already she knew it. He only laughed at her puny efforts to hurt him, laughed and goaded her afresh.
"Why am I not a gentleman?" he asked, and drew in a mouthful of smoke which he puffed at the ceiling. "Because I said I should like to give you a whipping? But you would like to tar and feather me, I gather. Isn't that even more barbarous?" He watched the smoke ascend, with eyes screwed up, then, as she did not speak, looked down at her again.
She no longer stood in the sunlight, and the passing of the splendour seemed to have left her cold. She looked rather small and pinched—there was even a hint of forlornness about her. But she had learned her lesson.
As he looked at her, she clenched her hands, drew a deep breath, and spoke. "Dr. Wyndham, I beg your pardon for hurting you, and for being rude to you. I can't help my thoughts, of course, but I was wrong to put them into words. Please forget—all I've said!"
"Oh, I say!" said Max, opening his eyes, "that's the cruellest thing you've done yet. You've taken all the wind out of my sails, and left me stranded. What is one expected to say to an apology of that sort? It's outside my experience entirely."
Olga had turned to the door, but at his words she paused, looking back. A glimmer of resentment still shone in her eyes.
"If I were in your place," she said, "I should apologize too."
"Oh, no, you wouldn't," said Max. "Not if you wished to achieve the desired effect. You see, I've nothing to apologize for."
"How like a man!" exclaimed Olga.
"Yes, isn't it? Thanks for the compliment! Strange to say, I am much more like a man than anything else under the sun. I say, are you really going? Well, I forgive you for being naughty, if that's what you want. And I'm sorry I can't grovel to you, but I don't feel justified in so doing, and it would be very bad for you in any case. By the way—er—Miss Ratcliffe, I think you will be interested to learn that my visit to the Campions was of a social and not of a professional character. That was all you wanted to know, I think?"
Olga, holding the door open, looked across at him with surprise that turned almost instantly to half-scornful enlightenment.
"Oh, that's it, is it?" she said.
"That's it," said Max. "Quite sure you don't want to know anything else?"
Again he puffed the smoke upwards and watched it ascend.
"Why on earth couldn't you have said so before?" said Olga.
He turned at that and surveyed her quite seriously. "Oh, that was entirely for your sake," he said.
"For my sake!" said Olga. Sheer curiosity impelled her to remain and probe this mystery.
"Yes," said Max, with a sudden twinkle in his green eyes. "You know, it isn't good for little girls to know too much."
As the door banged upon her retreat, he leaned back, holding to the edge of the table, and laughed with his chin in the air.
Life in the country, notwithstanding its many drawbacks, was turning out to be more diverting than he had anticipated.
"Ah, my dear, there you are! I was just wondering if I would come over and see you."
Violet Campion reined in her horse with a suddenness that made him chafe indignantly, and leaned from the saddle to greet Olga, who had just turned in at the Priory gates.
Olga was bicycling. She sprang from her machine, and reached up an impetuous hand, as regardless of the trampling animal as its rider.
"Pluto is in a tiresome mood to-day," remarked his mistress. "I know he won't be satisfied till he has had a good beating. Perhaps you will go on up to the house while I give him a lesson."
"Oh, don't beat him!" Olga pleaded. "He's only fresh."
"No, he isn't. He's vicious. He snapped at me before I mounted. It's no good postponing it. He'll have to have it." Violet spoke as if she were discussing the mechanism of a machine. "You go on up the drive, my dear, while I take him across the turf."
But Olga lingered. "Violet, really—I know he will throw you or bolt with you. I wish you wouldn't."
Violet's laugh had a ring of scorn. "My dear child, if I were afraid of that, I had better give up riding him altogether."
"I wish you would," said Olga. "He is much too strong for a woman to manage."
Violet laughed again, this time with sheer amusement, and then, with dark eyes that flashed in the sunlight, she slashed the animal's flank with her riding-whip. He uttered a snort that was like an exclamation of rage, and leaped clean off the ground. Striking it again, he reared, but received a stinging cut over the ears that brought him down. Then furiously he kicked and plunged, catching the whip all over his glossy body, till with a furious squeal he flung himself forward and galloped headlong away.
Olga stood on the drive and watched with lips slightly compressed. She knew that as an exhibition of skilled horsemanship the spectacle she had just witnessed was faultless; but it gave her no pleasure, and there was no admiration in the eyes that followed the distant galloping figure with the merciless whip that continued active as long as she could see it.
As horse and rider passed from sight beyond a clump of trees, she remounted her bicycle, and rode slowly towards the house.
Old and grey and weather-stained, the walls of Brethaven Priory shone in the hot sunlight. It had been built in Norman days a full mile and a half inland; but more than the mile had disappeared in the course of the crumbling centuries, and only a stretch of gleaming hillside now intervened between it and the sea. The wash and roar of the Channel and the crying of gulls swept over the grass-clad space as though already claim had been laid to the old grey building that had weathered so many gales. Undoubtedly the place was doomed. There was something eerily tragic about it even on that shining August afternoon, a shadow indefinable of which Olga had been conscious even in her childish days.
She looked over her shoulder several times as she rode in the direction in which her friend had disappeared, but she saw no sign of her. Finally, reaching the house, she went round to a shed at the back, in which she was accustomed to lodge her bicycle.
Here she was joined by an immense Irish wolf-hound, who came from the region of the stables to greet her.
She stopped to fondle him. She and Cork were old friends. As she finally returned to the carriage-drive in front of the house, he accompanied her.
The front door stood open, and she went in through its Gothic archway, glad to escape from the glare outside. The great hall she thus entered had been the chapel in the days of the monks, and it had the clammy atmosphere of a vault. Passing in from the brilliant sunshine, Olga felt actually cold.
It was dark also, the only light, besides that from the open door, proceeding from a stained-glass window at the farther end—a gruesome window representing in vivid colours the death of St. John the Baptist.
A carved oak chest, long and low, stood just within, and upon this the girl seated herself, with the great dog close beside her. Her ten-mile bicycle ride in the heat had tired her.
There was no sound in the house save the ticking of an invisible clock. It might have been a place bewitched, so intense and so uncanny was the silence, broken only by that grim ticking that sounded somehow as if it had gone on exactly the same for untold ages.
"What a ghostly old place it is, Cork!" Olga remarked to her companion. "And you actually spend the night here! I can't think how you dare."
In response to which Cork smiled with a touch of superiority and gave her to understand that he was too sensible to be afraid of shadows.
They were still sitting there conversing, with their faces to the sunlit garden, when there came the sound of a careless footfall and Violet Campion, her riding-whip dangling from her wrist, strolled round the corner of the house, and in at the open door.
She was laughing as she came, evidently at some joke that clung to her memory.
"Look at me!" she said. "I'm all foam. But I've conquered his majesty King Devil for once. He's come back positively abject. My dear, do get up! You're sitting on my coffin!"
Olga got up quickly. "Violet, what extraordinary things you think of!"
The other girl laughed again, and stooping raised the oaken lid. "It's not in the least extraordinary. Look inside, and picture to yourself how comfy I shall be! You can come and see me if you like, and spread flowers—red ones, mind. I like plenty of colour."
She dropped the lid again carelessly, and took a gold cigarette-case from her pocket. The sunlight shone generously upon her at that moment, and Olga Ratcliffe told herself for the hundredth time that this friend of hers was the loveliest girl she had ever seen. Certainly her beauty was superb, of the Spanish-Irish type that is world-famous,—black hair that clustered in soft ringlets about the forehead, black brows very straight and delicate, skin of olive and rose, features so exquisite as to make one marvel, long-lashed eyes that were neither black nor grey, but truest, deepest violet.
"Don't look at me like that!" she said, with gay imperiousness. "You pale-eyed folk have a horrible knack of making one feel as if one is under a microscope. Your worthy uncle is just the same. If I weren't so deeply in love with him, I might resent it. But Nick is a privileged person, isn't he, wherever he goes? Didn't someone once say of him that he rushes in where angels fear to tread? It's rather an apt description. How is he, by the way? And why didn't you bring him too?"
She stood on the step, with the sunlight pouring over her, and daintily smoked her cigarette. Olga came and stood beside her. They formed a wonderful contrast—a contrast that might have seemed cruel but for the keen intelligence that gave such vitality to the face of the doctor's daughter.
"Oh, Nick is playing cricket with the boys," she said. "He is wonderfully good, you know, and takes immense care of us all."
"A positive paragon, my dear! Don't I know it? A pity he saw fit to throw himself away upon that very lethargic young woman! I should have made him a much more suitable wife—if he had only had the sense to wait a few years instead of snatching the first dark-eyed damsel who came his way!"
"Oh, really, Violet! And fancy calling Muriel lethargic! She is one of the deepest people I know, and absolutely devoted to Nick—and he to her."
"Doubtless! doubtless!" Violet flicked the ash delicately from her cigarette. "I am sure he is the soul of virtue. But how comes it that the devoted Muriel can tear herself from his side to go a-larking on the Continent with the grim and masterful Dr. Jim?"
"Oh, I thought you knew that. It is for the child's benefit. Poor little Reggie has a delicate chest, and Redlands doesn't altogether suit him. Dad positively ordered him abroad, and when Muriel demurred about taking him out of Dad's reach (she has such faith in him, you know), he arranged to go too if Nick would leave Redlands and come and help me keep house. You see, Dad couldn't very well leave me to look after Dr. Wyndham singlehanded."
"My dear, of course not!" Up went the violet eyes in horror at the bare suggestion. "You scandalize me. An innocent child like you! Not to be thought of for a moment! Rather than that, I would have come and shared the burden with you myself!"
"That's exactly what I have come to ask you to do," said Olga eagerly. "Do say you can! You can't think how welcome you will be!"
"My dear, you're so impetuous!" Violet was just a year her junior, but this fact was never recognized. "Pray give me time to deliberate. You forget that I also have a family to consider. What will Bruce say if I desert him at a moment's notice?"
"I'm sure Bruce won't mind. Can't we go and ask him?"
"Presently, my child. He is not at home just at present. Neither is Mrs. Bruce." The daintiest grimace in the world testified to the opinion entertained by the speaker for the latter. "Moreover, Bruce and I had a difference of opinion this morning and are not upon speaking terms. So unfortunate that he is so difficile. By the way, he is hand and glove with the new assistant. Were you aware of that?"
"I knew that he came to tea here yesterday," said Olga.
"Oh! And how did you find that out?"
"He told me."
"You mean you asked him!"
"Indeed, I didn't!" Olga refuted the charge with indignation. "I don't take the smallest interest in his doings."
"Not really?" Her friend looked at her with a comprehending smile. "Don't you like the young man?" she enquired.
"I detest him!" Olga declared with vehemence.
Again the slender little finger flicked the ash from the cigarette. "But what a mistake, dear!" murmured the owner thereof. "Young men don't grow on every gooseberry bush. Besides, one can never tell! The object of one's detestation might turn out to be the one and only, and it's so humiliating to have to change one's mind."
"I shall never change mine with regard to Dr. Wyndham," Olga said with great determination. "I should hate him quite as badly even if he were the only man in the world."
But at that the cigarette was suddenly whisked from the soft lips and pointed full at her. "Allegro,"—it was Violet Campion's special name for her, and she uttered it weightily,—"mark my words and ponder them well! You have met your fate!"
"Violet! How dare you say such a thing?" Olga turned crimson with indignant protest. "I haven't! I wouldn't! It's horrid of you to talk like that!"
"Quite indecent, dear, I admit. But have you never noticed how indecent the truth can be? What a pity to waste such a lovely blush on me! I presume he hasn't begun to make love to you yet?"
"Of course he hasn't! No man would be such a fool with you within reach!" thrust back Olga, goaded to self-defence.
"But I am not within reach," said Violet, with a twirl of the cigarette.
"Far more so than I," returned Olga with spirit. "Anyhow, he never went out of his way to have tea with me."
A peal of laughter from her companion put a swift end to her indignation. Violet was absolutely irresistible when she laughed. It was utterly impossible to be indignant with her.
"Then you think if I am there perhaps he will be persuaded to stay at home to tea?" she chuckled mischievously. "Well, my dear, I'll come, and we will play at battledore and shuttlecock to your heart's content. But if the young man turns and rends us for our pains—and I have a shrewd notion that that's the sort of young man he is—you mustn't blame me."
She tossed away her cigarette with the words, and turned inwards, sweeping Olga with her with characteristic energy. She was never still for long in this mood.
They passed through the great hall to a Gothic archway in the south wall, close to the wonderful stained window. Olga glanced up at it with a slight shiver as she passed below.
"Isn't it horribly realistic?" she said.
The girl beside her laughed lightly. "I rather like it myself; but then I have an appetite for the horrors. And they've made the poor man so revoltingly sanctimonious that one really can't feel sorry for him. I'd cut off the head of anybody with a face like that. It's a species that still exists, but ought to have been exterminated long ago."
With her hand upon Olga's arm, she led her through the Gothic archway to a second smaller hall, and on up a wide oak staircase with a carved balustrade that was lighted half-way up by another great window of monastic design but clear glass.
Olga always liked to pause by this window, for the view from it was magnificent. Straight out to the open sea it looked, and the width of the outlook was superb.
"Oh, it's better than Redlands," she said.
"I don't think so," returned Violet. "Redlands is civilized. This isn't. Picture to yourself the cruelty of bottling up a herd of monks here in full view of their renounced liberty. Imagine being condemned to pass this window a dozen times in the day, on the way to that dreary chapel of theirs. A refinement of torture with which the window downstairs simply can't compete. How they must have hated the smell of the sea, poor dears! But I daresay they didn't open their windows very often. It wasn't the fashion in those days."
She drew Olga on to the corridor above, and so to her own room, a cheerful apartment that faced the Priory grounds.
"If I am really coming to stay with you, I suppose I must pack some clothes. Does the young man dress for dinner, by the way?"
"Oh, yes. It's very ridiculous. We all do it now. It's such a waste of time," said the practical Olga. "And I never have anything to wear."
"Poor child! That is a drawback certainly. I wonder if you could wear any of my things. I shouldn't like to eclipse you."
"I'm sure I couldn't, thank you all the same." Olga's reply was very prompt. "As to eclipsing me, you'll do that in any case, whatever you wear."
Violet looked at her with dancing eyes. "I believe you actually want to be eclipsed! What on earth has the young man been doing? He seems to have scared you very effectually."
"Oh, I'm not afraid of him!" Olga spoke with her chin in the air. "But I detest him with all my heart, and he detests me."
"In fact, you are at daggers drawn," commented Violet. "And you want me to come and divert the enemy's attention while you strengthen your defences. Well, my dear, as I said before, I'll come. But—from what I have seen of Dr. Maxwell Wyndham—I don't think I shall make much impression. If he means to gobble you up, he certainly will do so, whether I interfere or not. I've a notion you might do worse, green eyes and red hair notwithstanding. He will probably whip you soundly now and then and put you in the corner till you are good. But you will get to like that in time. And I daresay he will be kind enough to let you lace up his boots for a treat in between whiles."
Olga's pale eyes flashed. "You are positively mad this afternoon, Violet!"
"Oh, no, I'm not. I haven't had a mad spell for a long time. I am only extraordinarily shrewd and far-seeing. Well, dear, what shall I bring to wear? Do you think I shall be appreciated in my red silk? Or will that offend the eye of the virtuous Nick?"
"No, you are not to wear that red thing. Wear white. I like you best in white."
"Yes, black too. But not colours. You are too beautiful for colours."
"Ridiculous child! That red thing, as you call it, suits me to perfection."
"I know it does. But I don't like it. You make me think of Lady Macbeth in that. Besides, it's much too splendid for ordinary occasions. Yes, that pale mauve is exquisite. You will look lovely in that. And this maize suits you too. But you look positively dangerous in red."
"I must leave the business of selection to you, it seems," laughed Violet. "Well, I am to be your guest, so you shall make your own choice. By the way, how shall I get to Weir? Mrs. Bruce has the car, and will probably not return till late. And Bruce is using the dog-cart. That only leaves the luggage-cart for me."
"I'll fly round to Redlands for the motor. Nick won't mind. You get your things packed while I'm gone."
Olga deposited an armful of her friend's belongings upon the bed, and turned to go.
Nick's property of Redlands was less than a mile away, and all that Nick possessed was at her disposal. In fact, she had almost come to look upon Redlands as a second home. It would not take her long to run across to the garage and fetch the little motor which Nick himself had taught her years ago to drive. Lightly she ran down the oak stairs and through the echoing hall once more. The vault-like chill of the place struck her afresh as she passed to the open door. And again involuntarily she shivered, quickening her steps, eager to leave the clammy atmosphere behind.
Passing into the hot sunshine beyond the great nail-studded door was like entering another world. She turned her face up to the brightness and rejoiced.
Redlands had always been a bower of delight to Olga's vivid fancy. The house, long, low, and rambling, stood well back from the cliffs in the midst of a garden which to her childhood's mind had always been the earthly presentment of Paradise. Not the owner of it himself loved it as did Olga. Many were the hours she had spent there, and not one of them but held a treasured place in her memory.
As she turned in at the iron gate, the music of the stream that ran through the glen rose refreshingly through the August stillness. She wished Nick were with her to enjoy it too.
The temptation to run down to the edge of the water was irresistible. It babbled with such delicious coolness between its ferns. The mossy pathway gleamed emerald green. Surely there was no need for haste! She could afford to give herself five minutes in her paradise. Violet certainly would not be ready yet.
She sat down therefore on the edge of the stream, and gave herself up to the full enjoyment of her surroundings. An immense green dragon-fly whirred past her and shot away into the shadows. She watched its flight with fascinated eyes, so sudden was it, so swift, and so unerringly direct. It reminded her of something, she could not remember what. She wrestled with her memory vainly, and finally dismissed the matter with slight annoyance, turning her attention to a wonderful coloured moth that here flitted across her line of vision. It was an exquisite thing, small, but red as coral. Only in this fairyland of Nick's had she ever seen its like. Lightly it fluttered through the chequered light and shade above the water, shining like a jewel above the shallows, the loveliest thing in sight. And then, even under her watching eyes came tragedy. Swift as an arrow, the green dragon-fly darted back again, and in an instant flashed away. In that instant the coral butterfly vanished also.
Olga exclaimed in incredulous horror. The happening had been too quick for her eyes to follow, but her comprehension leaped to the truth. And in that moment she realized what it was of which the dragon-fly reminded her. It was of Max Wyndham sitting on the surgery-table watching her with that mocking gleam in his green eyes, as though he knew her to be at his mercy whether she stayed or fled.
It was unreasonable of course, but that fairy tragedy in the glen increased her dislike of the man a hundredfold. She felt as if he had darted into her life, armed in some fashion with the power to destroy. And she longed almost passionately to turn him out; for no disturbing force had ever entered there before. But she knew that she could not.
She went on up to the house in sober mood. It had been left to the care of the servants since Nick's departure. She found a French window standing open, and entered. It was the drawing-room, all swathed in brown holland. Its dim coolness was very different from the stony chill of the Priory. She looked around her with a restful feeling of being at home, despite the brown coverings. Many were the happy hours she had spent here both before and after Nick's marriage. It had always been her palace of delight.
As she paused in the room, she remembered that there was a book Nick had said he wanted out of the library. This room was a somewhat recent addition to the house and shut away from the rest of the building by a long passage. She passed from the drawing-room, and made her way thither.
It surprised her a little to find the door standing open, but it was only a passing wonder. The light that came in through green sun-blinds made her liken it in her own mind to a chamber under the sea. She went to a book-shelf in a dark corner, and commenced her hunt.
"If you are looking for Farrow's Treatise on Party Government," remarked a casual voice behind her, "I've got it here."
Olga started violently. Any voice would have given her a surprise at that moment, but the voice of Max Wyndham was an absolute shock that set every nerve on edge.
He laughed at her from the sofa, on which he sprawled at length. "My good child, your nerves are like fiddle-strings after a frost. Remind me to make you up a tonic when we get back! Did you bicycle over?"
Olga ignored the question. She was for the moment too angry to speak.
"Sit down," he said. "You ought to know better than to scorch on a day like this. You deserve a sunstroke."
"I didn't scorch," declared Olga, stung by this injustice. "I'm not such an idiot. You seem to think I haven't any sense at all!"
"My thoughts are my own," said Max. "Why didn't you say you were coming? You could have motored over with me."
"I didn't so much as know you would be in this direction. How could I?" said Olga. "And even if I had known—" she, paused.
"You would have preferred sunstroke?" he suggested.
"That I can quite believe. Well, here is the book!" He swung his legs off the sofa. "I dropped in to fetch it myself, as your good uncle seemed to want it, and then became so absorbed in its pages that I couldn't put it down. We seem to have a rotten Constitution altogether. Wonder whose fault it is."
Olga took the book with a slight, contemptuous glance. That he had been interested in the subject for a single moment she did not believe. She wondered that he deemed it worth his while to feign interest.
"Are you taking a holiday to-day?" she enquired bluntly.
He smiled at that. "I cut off an old man's toe at the cottage hospital this morning, vaccinated four babies, pulled out a tooth, and dressed a scald. What more would you have? I suppose you don't want to be vaccinated by any chance?"
Olga passed the flippant question over. "It's a half-holiday then, is it?" she said.
"Well, as it happens, fair lady, it is, all thanks to Dame Stubbs of 'The Ship Inn' who summoned me hither with great urgency and then was ungrateful enough to die before I reached her."
"Oh!" exclaimed Olga. "Is old Mrs. Stubbs dead?"
"She is," said Max.
She turned upon him. "And you've just come—from her death-bed?"
He arose and stretched himself. "Even so, fair lady."
Olga stared at him incredulously. "You actually—don't care?" she asked slowly.
"Not much good caring," said Max.
"What did she die of?" questioned Olga.
He hesitated for a second. Then, "cancer," he said briefly.
"Did she suffer much?" She asked the question nervously as if she feared the answer.
"It doesn't matter, does it?" said Max, thrusting his hands into his pockets.
"I don't see why you shouldn't tell me that." Olga spoke with a flash of indignation. "It does matter in my opinion."
"Nothing that's past matters," said Max.
"I don't agree with you!" Hotly she made answer, inexplicably hurt by his callous tone. "It matters a lot to me. She was a friend of mine. If I had known she was seriously ill, I'd have gone to see her. You—I think you might have told me."
She turned with the words as if to go, but Max coolly stepped to the door before her. He stretched a hand as if to open it, but paused, holding it closed.
"I was not aware that the old woman was a friend of yours," he said. "But it wouldn't have done much good to anyone if you had seen her. She probably wouldn't have known you."
"I might have taken her things at least," said Olga.
"Which she wouldn't have touched," he rejoined.
She clenched her hands unconsciously. Why was he so maddeningly cold-blooded?
"Do you mind opening the door?" she said.
But he remained motionless, his hand upon it. "Do you mind telling me where you are going?" he said.
Her eyes blazed. "Really, Dr. Wyndham, what is that to you?"
He stood up squarely and faced her, his back against the door. "I will answer your question when you have answered mine."
She restrained herself with an effort. How she hated the man! Conflict with him made her feel physically sick; and yet she had no choice.
"I am going down to 'The Ship' at once," she said, "to see her daughter."
"Pardon me!" said Max. "I thought that was your intention. I am sorry to have to frustrate it, but I must. I assure you Mrs. Briggs will have plenty of other visitors to keep her amused."
"I am going nevertheless," said Olga.
She saw his jaw coming into sudden prominence, and her heart gave a hard quick throb of misgiving. They stood face to face in the dimness, neither uttering a word.
Several seconds passed. The green eyes were staring at the bookshelves beyond Olga, but it was a stony, pitiless stare. Had he any idea as to how formidable he looked, she wondered? Surely—surely he did not mean to keep her against her will! He could not!
She collected herself and spoke. "Dr. Wyndham, will you let me go?"
Instantly his eyes met hers. "Certainly," he said, "if you will promise me first not to go to 'The Ship' till after the funeral."
She felt her face gradually whitening. "But I mean to go. Why shouldn't I?"
"Simply because it wouldn't be good for you," he made calm reply.
"How ridiculous!" They were the only words that occurred to her. She spoke them with vehemence.
He received them in silence, and she saw that a greater effort would be necessary if she hoped to assert her independence with any success.
It was essential that she should do so, and she braced herself for a more determined attempt. "Dr. Wyndham," she said, throwing as much command into her voice as she could muster, "open that door—at once!"
She saw again that glint in his eyes that seemed to mock her weakness. He stood his ground. "Fair lady," he said, "with regret I refuse."
She made a sharp movement forward, nerved for the fray by sheer all-possessing anger. She gripped the handle of the door above his hand and gave it a sharp wrench. He would not—surely he would not—struggle with her! Surely she must discomfit him—rout him utterly—by this means!
Yes, she had won! The sheer unexpectedness of her action had gained the day! Her heart gave a great leap of triumph as he took his hand away. But the next instant it stood still. For in the twinkling of an eye he had taken her by the shoulders holding her fast.
"That is the most foolish thing you ever did in your life," he said, and his words came curt and clipped as though he spoke them through his teeth.
Something about him restrained her from offering any resistance. She stood in silence, her heart jerking on again with wild palpitations. The grip of his hands was horribly close; she almost thought he was going to shake her. But his eyes under their bristling brows held her even more securely. Under their look she was suddenly hotly ashamed.
"You are going to make me that promise," he said.
But she stood silent, trying to muster strength to defy him.
"What do you want to go for?" he demanded.
"I want to know—I want to know—" She stammered over her answer; it was uttered against her will.
"Well? What?" Still holding her, he put the question. "I can tell you anything you want to know."
"But you won't!" Olga plucked up her spirit at this. "It's no good asking you anything. You never answer."
"I will answer you," he said.
"And besides—" said Olga.
"Yes?" said Max.
"You're so horrid," she burst out, "so cold-blooded, so—so—so unsympathetic!"
To her own amazement and dismay, she found herself in tears. In the same instant she was free and the door left unguarded; but she did not use her freedom to escape. Somehow she did not think of that. She only leaned against the wall with her hands over her face and wept.
Max, with his hands deep in his pockets, strolled about the room, whistling below his breath. The gleam had died out of his eyes, but the brows met fiercely above them. His face was the face of a man working out a difficult problem.
Suddenly he walked up to her, and stood still.
"Look here," he said; "can't you manage to be sensible for a minute? If you go on in this way you will soon get hysterical, and I don't think my treatment for hysterics would appeal to you. Olga, are you listening?"
Yes, she was listening—listening tensely, because she could not help herself.
"I'm sorry you think me a brute," he proceeded. "I don't think anyone else does, but that's a detail. I am also sorry that you're upset about old Mrs. Stubbs, though I don't see much sense in crying for her now her troubles are over. I think myself that it was just as well I didn't reach her in time. I should only have prolonged her misery. That's one of the grand obstacles in the medical career. I've kicked against it a good many times." He paused.
"She did suffer then?" whispered Olga, commanding herself with an effort.
"When she wasn't under the influence of morphia—yes. That was the only peace she knew. But of course it affected her brain. It always does, if you keep on with it."
Olga's hands fell. She straightened herself. "Then—you think she is better dead?" she said.
He squared his great shoulders, and she felt infinitely small. "If I could have followed my own inclination with that old woman," he said, "I should have given her a free pass long ago. But—I am not authorized to distribute free passes. On the contrary, it's my business to hang on to people to the bitter end, and not to let them through till they've paid for their liberty to the uttermost farthing."
She glanced at him quickly. Cynical as were his words, she was aware of a touch of genuine feeling somewhere. She made swift response to it, almost before she realized what she was doing.
"Oh, but surely the help you give far outweighs that!" she said. "I often think I will be a nurse when I am old enough, if Dad can spare me."
"Good heavens, child!" he said. "Do you want to be a gaoler too?"
"No," she answered quickly. "I'll be a deliverer."
He smiled his one-sided smile. "And I wonder how long you will call yourself that," he said.
She had no answer ready, for he seemed to utter his speculation out of knowledge and not ignorance. It made her feel a little cold, and after a moment she turned from the subject.
"I am going back to the Priory," she said. "Shall I take that book, or will you?"
It was capitulation, but he gave no sign that he so much as remembered that there had been a battle. Obviously then her defeat had been a foregone conclusion from the outset.
"You needn't bicycle back," he said. "I've got the car here. And I'm going to the Priory myself."
Olga's eyes opened wide at the announcement. "In—deed!" she said, with somewhat daring significance.
"In—deed!" he responded imperturbably. "Is it a joke?"
She felt herself colouring, and considered it safer to leave the question unanswered. "I can't go back in our car," she said. "Violet Campion will be with me, so I have come to fetch Nick's."
"Oh—ho!" said Max keenly. "Coming to stay?"
Very curiously she resented his keenness. "I suppose you have no objection," she said coldly.
"I am enchanted," he declared. "But why not come with me in the car? If you take the one from here, you will only have to bring it back, for you can't house it at Weir."
"But I should have to come back in any case to fetch my bicycle," Olga pointed out.
"No, you needn't! Mitchel can ride that home, and you can drive the motor. You can drive, I'm told?"
"Of course, I can. I often drive Dad." Olga spoke with pride.
"Do you really? Why did you never tell me that before? Afraid I should want you instead of Mitchel?" He looked at her quizzically.
"It wouldn't make much difference if you did," said Olga. It was really quite useless to attempt to be polite to him if he would come so persistently within snubbing distance. Besides, she really did not owe him any courtesy, after the way he had dared to treat her.
But he only laughed at her, and turned to the door. "I shouldn't be so cocksure of that if I were you," he said, opening it with a flourish. "I have a wonderful knack of getting what I want."
She flung him the gauntlet of her contemptuous defiance as she passed him. "Really?" she said.
He took it up instantly, with disconcerting assurance. "Yes, really," he said.
And to Olga all unbidden there came a sudden little tremor of shuddering remembrance as there flashed across her inner vision the spectacle of a green dragon-fly swooping upon a poor little fluttering scarlet moth.
THE SETTING OF THE WATCH
To return to the Priory with her bete-noir seated in triumph beside her was a trick of fortune that Olga had been very far from anticipating. There was no help for it, however, for he was determined to go thither, notwithstanding her assurance that the master of the house was from home. He leaned back at his ease and watched her drive with frank criticism.
"I had no idea you were so accomplished," he remarked, as they skimmed up the long Priory drive. "I should have thought you were much too nervous to drive a car."
Olga was never nervous except in his presence, but she would have rather died than have had him know it.
"Nick taught me," she said, "years ago, when he first lost his arm. It's about the only thing he can't do himself."
"I've noticed that he's fairly agile," commented Max. "What did he have his arm cut off for? Couldn't he make himself conspicuous enough in any other way?"
Olga's cheeks flamed. "He was wounded in action," she said shortly.
Max cocked one corner of his mouth. "And so entered Parliament in a blaze of glory," he said. "Vote for the Brave! Vote for the Veteran! Vote for the One-Armed Hero! Never mind his politics! That empty sleeve must have been absolutely invaluable to him in his electioneering days."
But joking on this subject was more than Olga could bear. The sight of the empty sleeve was enough to bring tears to her eyes at times even now. To hear it thus lightly spoken of was intolerable.
"How dare you say such a thing!" she exclaimed. "As if Nick—Nick!—would ever stoop to take advantage of a thing like that. Nick, who might have won the V.C., only—" She broke off with vehement self-repression. "I'm an idiot to argue with you!" she said.
"Don't be too hard on yourself!" said Max kindly. "Your imbecility takes quite an attractive form, I assure you. So our gallant hero occupies the shrine of your young affections, does he? It must be rather cramping for him. Is he never allowed to come out and stretch himself?"
Olga said no word in answer. Her lips were firmly closed.
"Poor chap!" said Max. "He must find it a tight squeeze, notwithstanding his size. If you don't slow up pretty soon, fair lady, you will knock the Priory into a heap of ruins."
"I know what I'm about," breathed Olga.
He caught the remark and threw it back with his customary readiness. "Do you really? I humbly beg to question that statement. If you did know, you would proceed with caution."
Olga applied her brake and brought the car adroitly to a standstill in front of the house before replying. Then she flung him a challenging glance.
"Yes," he said with deliberation. "I don't question your cleverness, fair lady;—only your wisdom. You are too prone to let your feelings run away with you, and that is the most infectious disorder that I know."
She laughed, avoiding his eyes, and hotly aware of a certain embarrassment that made reply impossible. "Perhaps, when you have quite finished your lecture, you will get out," she said, "and let me do the same. It's hot sitting here."
"Evidently," said Max.
He turned and descended, held up a hand to her, then, as she ignored it, stooped to guard her dress from the wheel. She whisked it swiftly from his touch, and ran in through the open door, encountering the master of the house just coming out with a suddenness that involved a collision.
He held her up with a sharp, "Hullo, hullo! Why don't you look where you are going?"
And Olga, crimson and breathless, extricated herself with more of speed than dignity. "I'm so sorry, Colonel Campion. The sun is so blazing, I didn't see you. I've come to fetch Violet. She has promised to spend a few days with me while Dad is away."
Colonel Campion's thin, bronzed face was grim, but he raised no objection to the projected visit. He turned at once to Max.
"Hullo, Wyndham! You, is it? Come in and have a drink."
And Olga, feeling herself dismissed, hastened away to find her friend. She stood somewhat in awe of Colonel Campion, despite the fact that his young half-sister defied him continually with impunity. There was something fateful and forbidding about him. He made her think of a man labouring perpetually under a burden which he resented, but was compelled to bear. She wondered what he and Max Wyndham could have in common as she paused at the sea-window on the stairs to cool her cheeks. He had certainly been pleased in his gloomy fashion to see Max, though he had not troubled to give her a welcome.
She found that Violet had not proceeded much further with her packing than when she had left her more than an hour before. She was in fact lying at careless ease half-dressed upon the bed, deeply immersed in a book with a lurid paper cover. She scarcely raised her eyes at Olga's entrance.
"Back already. My dear, you are like quicksilver. Well have I named you Allegro! It suits you to perfection. Sit down—anywhere! I really can't attend to you for a few minutes. This is the beastliest thing I've ever read. You shall have it when I've finished. It's all about the Turkish massacres in Armenia—revolting—absolutely revolting—" Her voice trailed off into a semi-conscious murmur and ceased. The beautiful eyes, dilated with horror, devoured the open page.
Olga contemplated her for a moment, then went to the bedside. "Violet, do put down that hateful book! How can you read such disgusting things? Violet!" as her remonstrance elicited no response, "do get up and let us pack your things! Dr. Wyndham is downstairs."
"What?" Violet looked at her this time, but with a mazed expression as of one half-asleep. "Who? The great Objectionable himself? How did you inveigle him here? By nothing short of witchcraft, I will swear. Those pale eyes of yours are rather witch-like, do you know? Did you fly over on a broomstick to fetch him? And why?"
Olga possessed herself of the book, and shut it with decision. "I came upon him at Redlands, and as he has got the car with him, we may as well go back in it. He said he was coming here in any case."
"Really, dear? I wonder why." Violet made a futile effort to recapture her book. "You might let me have it. I must know what became of those unlucky girls when the convent was taken. They mutilated most of the nuns with their scimitars. But the pupils—Allegro, let me have it, dear! I shan't sleep a wink to-night till I know the worst."
"You won't sleep if you do," said Olga magisterially.
"You shan't read any more. It's a disgusting, filthy book and you shan't have it. Get up and dress, and don't be horrid!"
"Horrid!" Violet broke into a gay laugh and the strained look passed in a moment from her eyes. "I was all that was beautiful a little while ago. You're quite right though. It is a foul book, and the man who wrote it is a downright beast. Take it away, and never let me see it again!"
She sprang from the bed, and began to do up her hair rapidly before the glass. Olga laid down the book, and busied herself with folding the various articles of raiment that littered the room.
"I think we ought to be quick," she said.
"To be sure! We mustn't keep his Objectionable Majesty waiting. Why didn't you bring him up with you? It would have kept him amused."
"Violet! As if I could!"
"Oh, couldn't you? I thought doctors were allowed anywhere. And I am sure this young man of yours is not lightly shocked. What was he doing at Redlands?"
Olga hesitated momentarily. "He had been sent for to 'The Ship,' to attend old Mrs. Stubbs," she said then. "But he didn't get there in time."
"Oh! Is she dead? I should think he is pretty savage with her, isn't he?"
"Why should you think so?" Olga glanced round in surprise.
"He's the sort of person to resent anyone dying without his express permission, I should imagine. I know I should never dare to die with him looking on;" Lightly the gay voice made answer. The speaker turned from the glass, her vivid face aglow with merriment. "Really, Olga, if you're quite determined to do my packing, I think I will run down and entertain him."
"You needn't trouble to do that. He is with your brother." Olga proceeded deftly with her task as she spoke. "We found him in the hall as we came in."
"Bruce back already! How tiresome of him! I meant to have just left a message, and now we shall have a wordy argument instead."
"Is Colonel Campion ever wordy?" asked Olga, trying to imagine this phenomenon.
"No, I supply the words and he the argument generally. You might just hook me down the back, dear; do you mind? What do you think his latest craze is? Mrs. Bruce is run down, so nothing will serve but we must all go for a yachting cruise in the Atlantic. I have told him flatly that I will not be one of the party. I detest being on the sea, and as to being boxed up in a yacht with those two—my dear, it would be unspeakable! I should simply leap overboard, I know I should, and I told him so. He has sulked ever since."
"Ah well, you are coming to us," said Olga consolingly. "So he can go without you now with a clear conscience."
"So he can. Mrs. Bruce will be enchanted. She hates me, though she pretends not to and thinks I don't know. Isn't it funny of her? Allegro, you're a darling!" Impulsively she whizzed round and kissed her friend. "You are the one person in the world who loves me, and the only one I love!"
"Violet dearest, how can you say so?"
"The truth, dear, I assure you. I fell in love last winter when we were at Nice with a boy with the most romantic, heavenly eyes you ever saw—an Italian. And then he went and spoilt everything by falling in love with me. I hated him then. He became cheap and very nasty. He only liked my outer covering too, and was not in the least interested in the creature that lived inside."
"You apparently only cared for his eyes," observed Olga.
"Yes, exactly, dear. How clever you are! I should like to have brought them away with me as trophies. But he didn't love me enough for that, and nothing else would have satisfied me. Have you put that hateful, revolting book quite out of reach? I think you had better. If I get it again, you won't take it away so easily a second time."
"I can't think what makes you like such beastly things," said Olga, sitting down upon it firmly.
"Nor I, dear. It's just the way I'm made. I don't like them either. I hate them. That's where the fascination comes in. There! Let me put on my hat, and I am ready. I suppose I must veil myself? We mustn't dazzle the impressionable Max, must we? He must accustom his sight to me gradually. Never mind the rest of those things, Allegro! Francoise can finish, and send them on by the luggage-cart in the evening. Come along, let us face the dragon and get it over."
She linked her arm in Olga's once more, and drew her to the door. Olga carried the book with her for safety, determined that her friend should feast no more on horrors.
"What a little tyrant you are!" laughed Violet. "I am coming to protect you from the dragon, but I shall probably end by protecting the dragon from you. Do you keep a censorious eye upon the literature he reads also?"
"I leave him quite alone," said Olga, "unless he interferes with me."
"Ah! And then, I suppose, you scratch him heartily Poor young man! But I should imagine he is quite capable of clipping your claws if they get in his way. My dear, your fate will be no easy one. I should begin to treat him kindly if I were you."
"I shall never do that," said Olga with conviction.
She was somewhat dismayed as they passed through the archway into the hall to find Max and his host still there; but as they were at the further end and apparently deeply engrossed in conversation, she decided that Violet's gay remarks were scarcely likely to have made any impression, even if they had penetrated so far.
Both men looked up at their entrance, and Max at once moved to meet them.
"I've turned up again at risk of boring you, Miss Campion," he observed. "I chanced to find myself in this direction, so had to yield to the temptation of coming here."
"Oh, don't apologize!" laughed Violet, giving him two fingers. "Of course, I know that it's Bruce you come to see. I wish you would prescribe him a temper tonic. He needs one badly, don't you, Bruce? So Granny Stubbs has given you the slip, has she? How impertinent of her! Aren't you very angry?"
Max shrugged his shoulders with a glance at Olga's tight lips. "I never expend my emotions in vain," he said. "It's a waste of time as well as energy, and I have other purposes for both."
"Then you are never angry?" enquired Violet.
"Never, unless I can punish the offender," smiled Max.
"How frightfully practical! Dear me! I shall have to be exceedingly careful not to offend you. I wonder what form your punishments usually take. Are they made to fit the crime?"
"Usually," said Max, and again he glanced at Olga.
Her eyelids flickered as though she were aware of his look, but she did not raise them.
"You make me quite nervous," declared Violet. "Do you know I have actually promised to come and help keep house for you and the redoubtable Captain Ratcliffe? I'm beginning to think I've been rather rash."
"On the contrary," said Max. "It was quite a wise move on your part, and it shall be mine to see that you do not regret it."
Her gay laugh rang through the old hall. "Bruce is looking quite scandalized, and I don't wonder. Will you and Adelaide be able to support life without me, Bruce? It's a purely formal question, so you needn't answer it if you don't wish. Oh, do let us have some tea! I'm so thirsty. Please ring the bell, Dr. Wyndham! It's close to you. Look at Olga cuddling that naughty book of mine! Don't you think you ought to take it away from her? It's not fit for an innocent maiden to handle even with gloves on."
"What book is it?" It was Colonel Campion who spoke in the harsh tone of one issuing a command.
Olga coloured fierily. "I was taking it away with me to burn on the garden bonfire," she said.
"Give it to me!" he said.
"No, don't, Allegro! It isn't yours to give. You may give it to Dr. Wyndham if you like, but not to Bruce."
"I am not going to give it to anyone," Olga said rather shortly.
"Pardon!" said Max, holding out his hand. "I should like to sample Miss Campion's taste in literature."
She drew back, but his hand remained outstretched. After a moment, reluctantly, she surrendered the book. He took it, and began to turn the pages.
"Nothing ever shocks a medical man," observed Violet. "He is inured to the worst. Come along, dear! This place is like a vault. Let us get into the sunshine and leave him to wallow till tea appears."
They went out together to Olga's immense relief, and spent the next ten minutes in playing with the motor, in the driving of which Violet had lately developed a keen interest.
When they returned, the book had disappeared and the incident was apparently forgotten. They had tea to the accompaniment of much light-hearted chatter on the parts of Violet and Max Wyndham. Colonel Campion sat in heavy silence, and Olga instinctively held aloof. There was something in Max's attitude that puzzled her, but it was something so intangible that she could not even vaguely define it to herself. All his careless banter notwithstanding, she was fully convinced in her own mind that he was not in the smallest degree dazzled or so much as attracted by the brilliant beauty that so dominated her own imagination. Though he laughed and joked in his customary cynical strain, she had a feeling that his mental energies were actually employed elsewhere. He was like a man watching behind a mask. Watching—for what?
Suddenly she remembered again the tragedy she had witnessed in the glen that afternoon, and her heart recoiled.
Was it the atmosphere of the place that made her morbid? Or was there indeed some evil influence at work in her friend's life which she by her headlong action had somehow rendered active?
Before they left the Priory, she had begun to repent almost passionately the impulse that had taken her thither. But wherefore she thus repented she could not have explained.
"It's very kind of Olga to provide us with distractions," said Nick, as he dropped into an arm-chair, with a cigar, "but I almost think we are better off without them. If I see much of that girl, it will upset my internal economy. Is she real by any chance?"
"Haven't you ever seen her before?" asked Max.
"Several times, but never for long together. Jove! What a face she has!" He turned his head sharply, and looked up at Max who stood on the hearth-rug. "You're not wildly enthusiastic over her anyhow," he observed. "Are you really indifferent or only pretending?"
"I?" The corners of Max's mouth went down. He stuffed his pipe into one of them and said no more.
Nick continued to regard him with interest for some seconds. Suddenly he laughed. "Do you know, Wyndham," he said, "I should awfully like to give you a word of advice?"
"What on?" Max did not sound particularly encouraging. He proceeded to light his pipe with exceeding deliberation. He despised cigars.
Nick closed his eyes. "In my capacity of chaperon," he said. "It's a beastly difficult position by the way. I'm weighed down by responsibility."
"So I've noticed," remarked Max drily.
"Well, you haven't done much to lighten the burden," said Nick. "I suppose you haven't realized yet that I am one of the gods that control your destiny."
"Well, no; I hadn't." Max leaned against the mantelpiece and smoked, with his face to the ceiling. "I knew you were a species of deity of course. I've been told that several times. And I humbly beg to offer you my sympathy."
"Thanks!" Nick's eyes flashed open as if at the pulling of a string. "If it isn't an empty phrase, I value it."
"I don't deal in empty phrases as a rule," said Max.
"Quite so. Only with a definite end in view? I hold that no one should ever do or say anything without a purpose."
"So do I," said Max.
Nick's eyes flickered over him and closed again. "Then, my dear chap," he said, "why in Heaven's name make yourself so damned unpleasant?"
"So what?" said Max.
"What I said." Coolly Nick made answer. "It's not an empty phrase," he added. "You will find a meaning attached if you deign to give it the benefit of your august consideration."
Max uttered a grim, unwilling laugh. "I suppose you are privileged to say what you like," he said.
"I observe certain limits," said Nick.
"And you never make mistakes?"
"Oh, yes, occasionally. Not often. You see, I'm too well-meaning to go far astray," said Nick, with becoming modesty. "You must remember that I'm well-meaning, Wyndham. It accounts for a good many little eccentricities. I think you were quite right to make her extract that needle. I should have done it myself. But you are not so wise in resenting her refusal to kiss the place and make it well. I speak from the point of view of the chaperon, remember."
"Who told you anything about a needle?" demanded Max, suddenly turning brick-red..
"That's my affair," said Nick.
"No, pardon me, not yours!" Again his eyes took a leaping glance at his companion.
Doggedly Max faced it. "Did she tell you?"
"Who?" said Nick.
"Olga." He flung the name with half-suppressed resentment. His attitude in that moment was aggressively British. He looked as he had looked to Olga that afternoon, undeniably formidable.
But Nick remained unimpressed. "I shan't answer that question," he said.
"You needn't," said Max grimly.
"That's why," said Nick.
"Oh! I see." Max's eyes searched him narrowly for a moment, then returned to the ceiling. "Does she think I'm in love with her?" he asked rather curtly.
"Well, scarcely. I shouldn't let her think that at present if I were you. In my opinion any extremes are inadvisable at this stage."
"I suppose you know I am going to marry her?" said Max.
"Yes, I've divined that."
"And you approve?"
"I submit to the inevitable," said Nick with a sigh.
Max smiled, the smile of a man who faces considerable odds with complete confidence. "She doesn't—at present."
Nick's grin of appreciation flashed across his yellow face and was gone. "No, my friend. And you'll find her very elusive to deal with. You will never make her like you. I suppose you know that."
"I don't want her to," said Max.
"You make that very obvious," laughed Nick. "It's a mistake. If you keep bringing her to bay, you'll never catch her. She's always on her guard with you now. She never breathes freely with you in the room, poor kid."
"What is she afraid of?" growled Max.
"You know best." Nick glanced up again with sudden keenness. "Don't harry the child, Wyndham!" he said, a half-whimsical note of pleading in his voice. "If you know you're going to win through, you can afford to let her have the honours of war. There's nothing softens a woman more."
"I don't mean to harry her." Max turned squarely round upon him. "But neither have I the smallest intention of fetching and carrying for her till she either kicks me or pats me on the head. I shouldn't appreciate either, and it's a method I don't believe in."
"There I am with you," said Nick. "But for Heaven's sake, man, be patient! It's no joke, I assure you, if the one woman takes it into her head that you are nothing short of a devouring monster. She will fly to the ends of the earth to escape you sooner than stay to hear reason."
Max smiled in his one-sided fashion. "Has that been your experience?"
Nick nodded. There was a reminiscent glitter in his eyes. "My courtship represented two years' hard labour. It nearly killed me. However, we've made up for it since."
"I don't propose to spend two years over mine," said Max.
Nick's eyes flashed upwards, meeting those of the younger man with something of the effect of a collision. His body however remained quite passive, and his voice even sounded as if it had a laugh in it as he made response.
"I think you're a decent chap," he said, "and I think you might make her happy; but I'm damned if she shall marry any man—good, bad, or indifferent—before she's ready."
"You also think you could prevent such a catastrophe?" suggested Max cynically.
Nick grinned with baffling amiability. "No, I don't think. I know. Quite a small spoke is enough to stop a wheel—even a mighty big wheel—if it's going too fast."
And again, more than half against his will, Max laughed. "You make a very efficient chaperon," he said.
"It's my speciality just now," said Nick.
He closed his eyes again peaceably, and gave himself up to his cigar.
Max, his rough red brows drawn together, leaned back against the mantelpiece and smoked his pipe, staring at the opposite wall. There was no strain in the silence between them. Both were preoccupied.
Suddenly through the open window there rippled in the fairy notes of a mandolin, and almost at once a voice of most alluring sweetness began to sing:
"O, wert thou in the cauld blast, On yonder lea, on yonder lea, My plaidie to the angry airt, I'd shelter thee, I'd shelter thee. Or did misfortune's bitter storms Around thee blaw, around thee blaw, Thy bield should be my bosom, To share it a', to share it a'."